Slow Cooker: Spinach Pesto Deep Dish Pie with Homemade Ricotta-A Summer Family Treat

Sunday July 12, 2015

Italian pasta casseroles are probably some of the most popular family cooking in all cuisines. The king of these is lasagna. Turns out the slow cooker pasta casserole that translates perfectly from the standard oven method is lasagna. A whole book could be written just on slow cooker lasagnas. The lasagna turns out that good.

I have made so many different types of lasagne over the years that I have a gigantic pasta casserole repertoire. I remember I made lunch for my cleaning lady one day. A few sheets of flat pasta, some sauce, slices of mozzarella and dusting of Parmesan. Into the oven it went and we had lunch pronto! She commented: “Everyone else whips up a bologna sandwich. You whip up a homemade lasagna.” Lasagna in the slow cooker is so efficient a way to prepare the casserole that you don’t have to worry about heating up the kitchen. So you can have lasagna, and leftovers, even in a heatwave.

This recipe is a favorite Neapolitan-style classic lasagna perfect for summer entertaining. Everyone loves spinach lasagna.

Use the no-boil dry noodles, which are considered as excellent a product as freshly rolled out pasta sheets due to their thinness. No precooking the noodles is one of those steps I love to skip. The jarred marinara has freshly made pesto, the essence of summer, stirred in. Homemade ricotta is ridiculously easy to make and mouth-watering in its delectable nature. It is as easy as heating milk and draining it for a few hours before assembling the pasta pie. The homemade pesto and homemade ricotta really add an extra appealing subtle flavor dimension, but of course you can use store bought to save time. Delicious!

Just be sure to get some nice crunchy bread sticks or crusty country bread, toss a salad and you will have a feast.

Overview

Slow Cooker: Large oval
Machine Setting and Cook Time: High Heat: 4 to 5 hours
Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 2 (25- to 26-ounces) jars marinara tomato sauce of choice
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto (recipe follows)
  • 1 box (9-ounces) no-cook oven-ready lasagna noodles (such as Barilla)
  • 2 containers (15-ounces each) ricotta cheese (whole milk preferred), or 2 recipes of homemade ricotta
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 (14- to 16-ounces) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1 1/4 cups grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 16-ounces mozzarella cheese, sliced thin or cubed

Instructions

• Spray a large round slow cooker with a nonstick vegetable spray, olive oil spray, or wipe with an olive oil soaked paper towel.

•Place 1 1/2 jars of the marinara sauce in a bowl and swirl in the pesto. Using a large spoon, place 1/2 cup of sauce over the bottom.

• In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, spinach, and half of the Parmesan until well mixed.

• Build the lasagna: Break one pasta sheet into pieces and cover the bottom with pieces; it doesn’t matter what shape or size the pieces are, just break to fit (about 1 1/2 sheets per layer); they will expand after baking.  Cover with 1/2 cup of sauce and a layer of mozzarella. Add another layer of pasta, then sauce and cheese. After the next layer of pasta (the third layer) spread with half of the ricotta mixture, then cover with 1/2 cup of sauce and some cheese. Repeat this for the next layer (the ricotta will be in the center of the pie). Repeat to layer the pasta, 1/2 cup sauce and mozzarella cheese for the next 2 layers. Press down gently to compress a bit.  Make 6 to 7 layers total, with the top layer a full cup of the plain marinara sauce (you might not use all of the sauce) and the Parmesan cheese. The lasagna will fill two-thirds to three-quarters full in the crock; it will collapse as it cooks.

• Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 to 5 hours, until the top layer is rippled and golden brown around the edges.  Test for tenderness by piercing the lasagna with the tip of a sharp knife at 3 hours. The lasagna will be fine on KEEP WARM for up to 2 hours, if necessary. Serve by cutting pieces with a metal or plastic spatula

Basil Pesto

While you can use a frozen or jarred pesto, there is nothing like fresh. Pesto is a recipe that can be made with approximate proportions-a bit of this and a bit of that. This is my favorite recipe.

making pesto by hand in a mortar and pestle

Makes about 1 1/4 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves (about 2 bunches)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil

Instructions

Combine all the ingredients, except for oil, in a food processor and pulse while adding the oil slowly to form slightly coarse purée.  I usually drop the garlic in first and get it finely chopped up before adding the other ingredients. The pesto may also be made by hand using a mortar and pestle if you are feeling frisky, or in a blender.  Store, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to use. If made the day before, pour a thin layer of olive oil over each pesto to seal it and keep it fresh.  Pesto can also be frozen up to a month.

Homemade Ricotta

Fluffy, fresh ricotta cheese can be made in about an hour. Recipe can be doubled. This is also delicious as a topping on pasta and marinara instead of Parmesan.

Yield: 1-pound, about 2 cups.

Ingredients

  • 2-quarts organic whole milk
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups cultured buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar

Instructions

1. Line a colander with cheesecloth that it is at least 4 layers thick. Place in the sink.

2. Pour the milk, cream, and salt into a large saucepan. Over medium heat, bring mixture to steaming hot. When the mixture reaches 175º to 180º degrees on a candy or meat thermometer, stir in the buttermilk and vinegar.

3. Keep the heat consistent. When curds form on the surface and separate from the whey, gently ladle them with a skimmer or slotted spoon to the colander. (Whey will look like cloudy gray water underneath a mass of thick white curds.) Every 10 minutes, gently ladle curds into the colander.

4. When all curds are in the colander, let drain about 15 minutes.  When dripping has slowed, gently gather edges of cloth and twist to bring curds together; do not squeeze. Place in a container, remove the cheesecloth, cover, and refrigerate until using. Discard the whey. Refrigerate and use within one week.

Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Family Favorites, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2009, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.


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